Editorial: Employee-Customer Communication at Social VR and Virtual World Companies

Need to vent? Some companies make it
easier than others to give feedback.
(photo by Icons8  Photo Studio, via Unsplash)

I have been thinking about writing this editorial for quite some time. Social VR and virtual worlds have been a part of my life since I first encountered Second Life back in 2007 (in a story I relate here). I have set foot in literally dozens of different worlds, old and new, and I have shared many of my experiences with you, my faithful blog readers, over the past couple of years.

In those 12+ years of metaverse hopping, I have seen all kinds of interactions between the staff employed by the companies that are building the various social VR/virtual world platforms, and the customers of those platforms, including the content creators. And I have seen many examples of both good and bad communication between employees and users. So I think it’s an opportune time to focus specifically on this topic, especially in light of this week’s events.

It is, of course, entirely up to the company to decide if, when and how it communicates with its customers. Some have taken a highly informal approach, where you can simply grab the person you know is in charge and bend their ear. This works very well for platforms with one-or-two-person development teams (like NeosVR and Cryptovoxels), but obviously, it doesn’t work well for larger and more formally structured companies like Linden Lab, VRChat, and High Fidelity.

The current level of access Sansar users and content creators have to Linden Lab staff via the official Sansar Discord is unprecedented, as many people have already noted. Staff up to and including the CEO, Ebbe Altberg, are available to answer questions. Regular in-world meetings are held with the users. While we should take advantage of that openness, we also can’t abuse this privilege.

And frankly, we should not expect that this unprecedented level of openness will stay that way forever. Why not? Because it simply doesn’t scale effectively. In the early days of Second Life I have been told that it was much the same, but over time, as millions of user accounts were created, Linden Lab has had to put various formal systems and structures in place to handle that load, and insert a bit of distance between their staff and their userbase. That’s an inevitable step as a product becomes popular, just to maintain some sanity for people providing product support. It happened with Second Life, and it will happen over time for Sansar as well.

But I do want to compare and contrast two examples of employee-user communication that happened this week. One has to do with the disastrous co-working island cam livestreams by High Fidelity. The other is related to the brouhaha over ample coverage of Sansar avatars, which I wrote about yesterday.

In the case of High Fidelity, I have been sharply critical of how the company has essentially abandoned its original userbase in its recent pivot to focus on enterprise use of their platform to support remote teamwork. It’s not so much what they did that upsets me as much as how they chose to do it. For example, High Fidelity shut down the regularly scheduled community meetings where regular users could pose questions and raise issues.

It is now so hard to actually reach anybody at High Fidelity, and the company is now so thoroughly insulated from its user base, that in desperation I had to resort to using a HiFi staff member’s personal Twitter account to report this week’s problems with the livestreams. (I have now been asked by that person to not use that method to contact her about High Fidelity business in future.)

And recently, I had to openly beg on the official HiFi user forums to find out to whom I should be directing a New Yorker magazine writer:

The current sad state of affairs is best illustrated by something that happened to me last Friday. Early that afternoon, I had been in contact with a magazine writer who was planning to write a story about virtual reality, and who asked me (via my blog) about people she could interview in an upcoming trip to San Francisco. I suggested she pay a visit to both Linden Lab and High Fidelity, and interview Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg and High Fidelity CEO Philip Rosedale.

I posted a request to the official Sansar Discord, and within ten minutes, a Linden Lab employee was in touch with me and gave me the name of a contact within the company that I could pass on to the writer.

And High Fidelity? After posting requests for assistance on both Discord servers and the official High Fidelity user forums, and waiting all afternoon for someone from the company to get back to me, I finally posted in exasperation:

“Is there NOBODY from High Fidelity monitoring these forums?!?? I got a response back from Linden Lab within half an hour, with the name of a contact person. I’ve been waiting all afternoon and nobody from HiFi has given me the name of a contact person that this writer could set up a meeting with.
Seriously? SERIOUSLY?!?? This is potential marketing for your platform.”

Eventually, one person (someone not associated with the company) suggested I message Jazmin Cano, High Fidelity’s User Engagement Manager, on Twitter, which I finally did late Friday evening. Jazmin was able to provide me with information that I could pass on to the writer.

High Fidelity’s community manager, Emily, did finally get back to me on Monday morning—a whole weekend later. It seems pretty clear that HiFi staff are not monitoring the Discord servers or the official community forums on a regular basis. And I don’t blame Emily or any one person for this current state of affairs. This is a sad case where the company has pretty much completely abandoned its original user base, the raving fans who were the platform’s best advertisement.

High Fidelity is a textbook-classic example of how not to communicate with your customers. The current situation is now so bad that its own users have rebelled and formed their own discussion forums and their own Discord server, in opposition to the company’s own official forums and Discord. To have generated such a level of distrust is truly amazing. You have to really work at it to screw things up that much!

Now let us contrast this with Linden Lab. Yes, yes, I know, I know…Linden Lab has often made some stupid mistakes in communication throughout its long history. You can find numerous examples in this blogpost of the Top 20 Controversies in Second Life.

A more recent example was the whole handling of what I now call “the Tilia thing” in Second Life, which eventually led to such an uproar that they held an in-world town hall meeting just to address all the questions and misconceptions that people had. Unfortunately, these types of mistakes have led to a sort of ingrained mindset among many longtime Second Life users that automatically assumes ill will or malicious intent on the part of Linden Lab, which is really rather unfair to the company and its employees.

However, Linden Lab, particularly under the capable leadership of its CEO Ebbe Altberg, has shown a remarkable willingness to make themselves available, to discuss issues of contention with its users, and to incorporate changes to their policies based the feedback they receive. A good recent example of this was the decision not to cut the number of groups that basic, non-Premium Second Life accounts could belong to (please see the update at the end of that blogpost for the company’s official statement).

And every day, I marvel as just how accessible, engaged, and helpful so many Linden Lab staff have been on the official Sansar Discord. A perfect example of that was the lively discussion that took place after yesterday’s blogpost, which, I will openly admit, was biased more towards the content creators than the company. Galileo, Harley, and various other Linden Lab employees took the time to educate this blogger about some of the bigger issues that weren’t so immediately obvious, and they also provided some valuable context as to why (for example) Sansar simply can’t have Ken and Barbie-like naked avatars, and why “ample coverage” is so important.

But the point that I am making in this very long-winded editorial (and yes, there is one!) is that companies like Linden Lab, which engage with their customers, listen to their concerns, and address their questions, are much healthier than companies like High Fidelity that passively (or even actively) discourage such communication.

Does that mean that everybody is happy with everything that Linden Lab is doing? No, of course not. Some end users and content creators are still very upset. Some have voted with their feet. But at least, we can talk about that corporate response in a way where we feel we are being heard. And that goes a long. long way towards happier customers overall.

I have talked about only two companies in this editorial: High Fidelity and Linden Lab. But there are many other examples of good and bad communication between employees and customers throughout the metaverse. We need both to applaud examples of good corporate communication, and to critique examples of poor corporate communication. And I intend to continue to do both on this blog.

Do you have any examples of good (or bad) communication between metaverse company employees and customers that you would like to talk about? Please feel free to leave a comment on this blogpost. Also, there’s the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, the world’s first cross-worlds discussion forum! I’d like to extend an invitation to have you join us and participate in the many discussions and debates that take place there.

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